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Friends in all places: Garth Brooks fans anticipate first Baltimore shows

Longtime Garth Brooks fan Hope Witt poses with her son, William, next to Brooks photographs and memorabilia in her Glen Burnie home. Witt has tickets for all five Royal Farms Arena shows.
Longtime Garth Brooks fan Hope Witt poses with her son, William, next to Brooks photographs and memorabilia in her Glen Burnie home. Witt has tickets for all five Royal Farms Arena shows. (Kim Hairston / Baltimore Sun)

Hope Witt has seen Garth Brooks live 27 times.

She has traveled to Tampa, Fla., Nashville, Chicago and Las Vegas to see her favorite performer.

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Concerts No. 28-32, however, will be unlike any other for the Glen Burnie resident and fellow Brooks fans. That's because, for the first time, the country star will play Baltimore not just once, but an unprecedented five times this month at Royal Farms Arena, beginning Friday. (Update: Originally scheduled for Friday and Saturday, Brooks' first two shows were rescheduled for Jan. 31 due to an expected snowstorm this weekend.)

When the shows were announced in November, Witt knew she needed tickets for all five.

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"Any person who can hold that many people in the palm of his hand during an entire show and leave them, after standing for three hours sometimes, wanting more — that's absolutely incredible to me," Witt, 41, said. "There's not a lot of country acts that come here of his caliber. They get a lot of other people, but I think he's a little bit different from everyone else."

Garth Brooks' concerts scheduled for Friday and Saturday night have been postponed to Jan. 31 due to an expected snowstorm, according to a news release.

With one sell-out and steady sales for the others, fans from the area and beyond have proved missing Brooks' first performances in Baltimore was not an option. But they also all have their own reasons for going, from his songs and how the singer carries himself to the friendships the music helped forge and the personal, sentimental reasons that will always be remembered. Brooks' ability to book the arena five times in four nights might seem surprising to some, especially given his commercial peak was more than 15 years ago.

That is, until you talk to his fans.

"Going to his shows are a little bit addictive," Witt said. "You just feel that comfortable and that caught up in what he does and what he's saying."

Brooks' Everyman approachability has always been central to the singer's appeal. Fans describe him as "so genuine" and relatable, which extends to his catchy, easy-to-digest country songs. Many of his hits are country standards, the type of karaoke songs even some non-country fans know, like "Friends in Low Places," "The Thunder Rolls," "Unanswered Prayers" and "The Dance."

This combination of hit songs and the likeable, down-to-earth guy behind them helps explain how Brooks, a two-time Grammy winner, became the No. 1 selling solo artist of all time, according to the Recording Industry Association of America. To date, he's sold more than 136 million albums in the United States alone.

Laurie DeYoung, the morning show host on Baltimore country station WPOC, said music from Brooks' latest album, 2014's "Man Against Machine," hasn't received much airplay, but the singer remains a legend in the genre.

"I don't think anybody is going to argue he's the male vocalist of the century, but he's a great entertainer," DeYoung, who plans to attend a show, said. "He kind of brought back entertainment into the world of country music. Back when he first came on, it was Alan Jackson, Randy Travis — people that didn't really put a show on. … Garth came in, and he just changed all of that."

On stage, Brooks shifted country expectations through sheer intensity, she said.

"When I've seen him perform, he has such a passion for what he's doing and he's able to really communicate that," DeYoung said. "I think he has a lot of integrity with people."

Brooks released his debut album in April 1989, and it didn't take long for Witt to become a huge fan. After years of following Brooks' career, she wanted to connect with more fans, so Witt found #gbfan, an online forum for Brooks fans on the pre-social media Internet Relay Chat. These online friendships grew into real-life ones. She even took a road trip to see Brooks in Tampa with fans from the chat, despite having never met them in person.

"My entire family thought that there was something wrong with me," she said with a laugh.

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Now, Witt will get to host some of her best friends, whom she met years ago through #gbfan, when they visit for some Baltimore dates.

While fans like Witt have formed friendships over Brooks, Jessica Kupper uses a specific song from the singer to stay close to her father. Every day on her drive home from work, the 36-year-old Original Northwood resident plays "Friends in Low Places," Brooks' 1990 blue-collar anthem she and her dad, Bill, would belt together all of the time.

Neither were huge country fans, but "Friends" stuck, Jessica thinks, because the lyrics reflected her father's easy-going attitude.

"Growing up, everything was so relaxed and he always made people feel comfortable," she said. "Who can't relate to that song if you're kind of a normal, welcoming person who likes to have fun?"

In October, at 69, Kupper's father was checked into an intensive care unit after a complicated battle with leukemia for years that had rapidly grown worse. With her hand in his, Jessica pulled out her smartphone to play their song together one last time before he died.

At a luncheon after Bill's funeral, Jessica's family handed out "Friends" lyric sheets for a proper sendoff of her father. Sharing the song among friends and family uplifted the room's spirits, which felt fitting to Jessica.

"It's a really sad time, but at the same time, what are you doing at funerals? You're celebrating the person and how he brought you together," she said. "The whole restaurant staff came out and started singing with us. It was just neat, because it was like, you know what, my dad would probably be having a ball."

Naturally, Jessica is most excited to hear "Friends" at the arena. She expects "to be the fool at the concert who has tears running down" her face.

"It's going to be tough, but I'm totally going to soak in the moment, probably more than any other song or concert I've been to," Jessica said. "Tons of songs have special meanings, but I think this one takes the cake."

For some fans, Brooks' run is a reason to come to Baltimore.

A fan since hearing "The Thunder Rolls" in the early '90s, Marjolijn Stefanoni lives in a village an hour outside of Zurich, Switzerland. Last year, she flew over to see six of Brooks' shows in Pittsburgh, and now she's visiting Baltimore for the first time for three of the arena shows. At home, few share her support for the singer.

"Country music, in general, is nowhere in Switzerland," Stefanoni, who "can't wait to eat American pancakes," said. "If I tell people I'm a really huge Garth Brooks fan, mostly the reaction is 'Who? Who's that?'"

Her fandom, which she recently made permanent with a "G"-logo tattoo, is an example of Brooks' universality. A Dutch woman living in Switzerland has no problem relating to the songs sung by a Tulsa, Okla., native.

"The way he tells a story, to me, it's like real-life stories," Stefanoni, 47, said. "It's supporting you when you're down and celebrating with you when you're up. He has songs for everything — every situation and every emotion."

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Before his BB&T Center concert, Garth Brooks and his wife, Trisha Yearwood, took time out for an interview. The concert on Jan. 14 in Sunrise was his first appearance in South Florida since 1996, when he played the Miami Arena.

And then there are fans, like Annapolis' Josh Young, who think Brooks doesn't get his due in country circles, despite his massive success. Young, who is attending one arena show, considers his songwriting abilities underrated.

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"A lot of folks kind of write Garth Brooks off as kind of a joke, but he's a [legitimate] musician with some serious country chops," Young, 37, wrote in an email. "Musically, he's a first-rate storyteller, and his lyrics speak to the human condition. … In a lot of ways, his music has served as the soundtrack of the American experience."

No matter the reasons these fans procured tickets for the shows, all said they're counting down the days to see the star in Baltimore.

Witt is bringing her 5-year-old son, William, which means more to her than anything else.

"It means the world to me to sit there and take him to something that I've enjoyed my whole life. I guess it's like comparing it to a dad taking his kid to their first football game," Witt said. "While he doesn't get it now, he will."

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